Burt Bacharach, songwriter – courtesy of Ali Harper at Circa Theatre

THE LOOK OF LOVE – An Evening of songs of Burt Bacharach
written and presented by Ali Harper (vocalist)
with Tom McLeod (musical director/piano) / Callum Allardice (guitar)

Music arranged, produced and mixed by Tom Rainey
Soundtrack played by members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
Backing vocals performed by Jennine Bailey, Naomi Ferguson and Juliet Reynolds-Midgely
Recorded and engineered by Thom O’Connor
Produced by Ali Harper and Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday, 23rd January 2021

I can’t think of another performer I know whose presentations give me more pleasure than do those of Ali Harper’s, for her unbeatable combinations of artistry, energy and sheer charisma! And here, at Circa Theatre once again, we were treated to all of those qualities put at the service of the music of one of the most iconic songwriters of recent times, Burt Bacharach. His is a name which, like those of songwriters of previous eras, such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, has become synonymous with the act of creation of songs that immediately bring to listeners’ minds memories of specific times, places and people.

For Harper this show seemed something of a chameleon’s act throughout the presentation, one that she brought off with characteristic whole-heartedness and engaging flair – unlike with her previous shows I’d seen in which she personified either a single performer (“A Doris Day Special”), or a number of stellar artists, either as themselves(“Legendary Divas”) or as their star-struck fans (“Songs for Nobodies”), her focus this time was a songwriter. How adroitly and persuasively, then, was she able to train her focus on either a singer associated with the song, or the situation/or context of the song itself, giving something of an organic feel to the songwriter’s motivations in each case and thus recreating Bacharach’s very own “story” through music.

I wondered beforehand just how Harper would approach these works, given that the confines of the theatre might have seemed to suggest a more intimate, cabaret-style performance, one that would have admirably suited many of Bacharach’s songs that I remembered. When we first entered the auditorium it seemed possible that this was to be the case, with “music stations” visibly set up for the singer, for piano, and for another solo instrument – what happened then was that, after the pianist and guitarist had begun, and Harper had entered, the song accompaniments “burgeoned” into what sounded like a full symphony orchestra backing for many of the numbers, Harper explaining at some point that the musicians were in fact members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, whose “sound” had been pre-recorded to recreate that well-remembered “Bacharach sound” – many of the songs would have responded well to “cabaret” treatment, but the music undeniably resonated more ambiently in the memory in these sumptuously-crafted “orchestrated” accompaniments.

I admit that it took me the length of the song “The Look of Love” to “adjust” to this “full-on” instrumental approach, not being a great fan in principle of pre-recorded sound and its deployment, but gradually coming to accept the sonic soundscape Harper and her valiant musicians deemed appropriate – thereafter I was caught up in the sweep and full-frontal engagement of it all – and, as with all sound recordings, the ear soon adjusts to pretty much whatever one hears and allows the essential enjoyment to reassert itself.

I’d hoped that, despite knowing many of the songs from radio-listening over the years, I’d be floored by surprises of the “did he write THAT?” variety – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed! Unexpectedly encountering numbers such as “The Story of My Life”, “Raindrops keep falling on my Head” and (perhaps most movingly of all) “Alfie”, pushed my Bacharach-parameters into hitherto unchartered regions, both enlarging and deepening my appreciation of his achievement, the latter song in particular one of those “not a note wasted” creations, and fully supporting the statement made by Harper and her pianist Tom McLeod when discussing Bacharach’s style of composing – that he didn’t like “vanilla”, or plain sweetness, but would “explore” unconventionalities in both harmonies and melodic lines. Here, “Alfie” seemed to proclaim itself as one of the great songs, Bacharach devising an almost Mussorgsky-like melodic progression that’s close to “sprechgesang”, plainly, though not entirely unsympathetically delineating the hero’s character, and put across by Harper simply, directly and most movingly.

In some shape or form there’s that avoidance of “vanilla” in most things I knew Bacharach had written as well – the spontaneous quirkiness of “Say a Little Prayer for Me”, “Walk on By” and “Anyone who had a heart”, for example, songs which somehow transmit both impulse and deeper emotion into and through music and find their mark. Bacharach may have had notables such as Dionne Warwick, and even occasionally Cilla Black as his music’s exponents, but here Ali Harper proved as worthy, insightful, and thrilling an interpreter, from the heart-in-mouth “opening up” of the emotional guns in “Magic moments” at the words “Time can’t erase the memory of….”, to the almost confessional candour of “A House is not a House”, a song which is all impulse and reflection, here expressed by both singer and pianist with exquisitely-focused simplicity.

Mentioning of Bacharach’s song-writing partner Hal David and the latter’s gift for crafting words whose individual sounds and configurations were matched by the music straightaway put me in mind of George and Ira Gershwin’s equally combustible partnership, and, in fact, daring me to suggest to Harper that perhaps one day……but no, it’s the here and now that should remain my subject, more properly paying tribute to the singer and her “team” for my enrichment of knowledge and awareness of Bacharach’s activities – Marlene Dietrich’s musical collaborator during the 1950s? – goodness! As for his contributions to films such as “Casino Royale”, “Alfie” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, not to mention “What’s New, Pussycat” – well, I obviously didn’t take much notice of film credits in those carefree days of my youth!

What I thought Ali Harper conveyed most warmingly and lastingly was Bacharach’s ability in his music to relate to and uncover people’s emotions concerning basic human needs – I came away from the show with what seemed like pocketfuls of familiar feelings reawakened and stirred, some gentle tickling, and others via uncomfortably prodding, a full gamut of experience suggested and shared. And we delighted in the medium as well as the message, in the singer’s unfailing ease and warmth of communication and infectious, all-embracing delight in putting across the music for our pleasure.

The show was supposed to conclude with “What the world needs now”, described by Harper as “a song for our time”, the sentiments of the relatively unfamiliar verses expressed with filled-to-the-brim conviction, and the choruses lustily joined in with by all present – a standing ovation necessitated a “second conclusion”, with Harper and her musicians giving us “That’s what friends are for” to the ambient accompaniment of audience members’ torchlight beams bringing light to the darkness and hope to all present for a brighter future. Thank you, Ali! – so much appreciated!

At Circa Theatre up to February 20th 2021